The red grouse is regarded by many as the ultimate sporting bird and a day in the butts on a top class grouse moor is the most exclusive and rarified of places to find oneself.
Through good fortune and a generous host, I found myself once again, in mid-September, awaiting the incomers with back-to-back days on East Allanheads and Muggleswick moors, in Cumbria.
The rain fell, the wind blew and the grouse were on the wing in numbers that took the breath away.
This year I decided to use a composed pair of 12-bores. One is my trusty old friend; a J. Thompson hammer gun that I paid £50 for, twenty years ago. It looked like a scrapper, we rescued it, restored it and I have since killed untold thousands of birds with it. The other gun, also made around 1875, is a similar bar-action gun by W. Thorn of Pall Mall but with non-rebound locks. It cost me £600 a decade past and is beautifully made. Neither gun has any real choke in the muzzles.
They weigh about the same (7lbs), feel similar in the hands and have the same length (30") barrels and buttstock measurements. The Jones under-levers do not make for super-fast loading but if shooter and loader work patiently, a good loading-firing cycle can be kept-up.
Attire is always a subject for discussion and most of my companions opted for waterproof synthetic top layers, given the forecast for rain all day. I chose traditional tweeds, wearing a Massy-Birch bespoke suit on the first day and a loud check breeks-and-gilet set by Cordings on the second.
The lack of arm cover on day two was a mistake, as I ended up with soggy elbows. When fully tweed clad on day one, I remained comfortable and dry inside, even when my tweeds were wet outside.
For ammunition, I again took a mixture of lead and BioAmmo Blue. I asked my loader to make a mental note of performance, while I remained ignorant of what was in the guns at any given time. His observations would prove interesting.
He told me at the end of the day that birds well hit that staggered and fell 'less cleanly' were invariably the case when BioAmmo Blue was used. The clean kills, especially at longer ranges (and we killed some very long going-away birds) were achieved with lead. This corroborates my earlier experiments and suggests that unless the range in sub 25-yards, BioAmmo Blue kills far less effectively than does lead.
That is bad news for all of us who like to shoot our old guns and revel in their effectiveness when using the ammunition for which they were designed. I applaud our cartridge manufacturers for their continued efforts to find solutions but so far we still have a long way to go.
The shooting was phenomenal, the team capable and the bag admirable, with birds falling across the line of eight, from right to left every drive. The wind gave the birds speed, the terrrain channelled them in the most unpredictable ways and their previous experiences of approaching the butts made them wary and cunning.
There was no time to hesitate; eyes, mind and body had to be in harmony every time an opportunity arose. When they were, time seemed to freeze at the moment the shot took flight and the bird folded. Those sweet mental snap shots stay with you forever.
One of the most impresive aspects of the shoot catering was that we were snacking on grouse throughout the day. Strips of breast meat coated in breadcrumbs, fried and served as finger food with a spicy mayo dip; fabulous!
I made sure to take home as many grouse as I could and breasted them out ready for our chef to prepare for our November shoot party.
Heading back down the M6 in pouring rain the morning after; a 200 mile journey, gave me time to reflect and appreciate just what a lucky boy I am to have friends like I have and opprtunities to do these wonderful things in beautiful places with great company.
So much goes into a grouse day; the legions of beaters blanking in from miles away, where they appear as mere specks on the horizon, 'keepers, pickers up, caterers, loaders, drivers.
So many people working so hard to put that most wonderful of game birds onto the wind, heading towards the butts. Butts with a handful of the fortunate crouched within their earthen walls, waiting, poised, hoping to be fast enough, accurate enough, decisive enough, focussed enough, fluid enough - all these things at once in the hope of doing justice to all those whose efforts have brought them to this moment.
Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on (modified )